Community activist Mary Coffin dies
SCHENECTADY A community activist and political firebrand who once took on her own party when she felt it overstepped has died.
Mary Coffin, 93, passed away Sunday at a retirement center in Lenox, Mass. She moved there in 1997 after a long career in Schenectady, in which she joined almost every community service organization. When that wasn’t enough, she went to law school so that she could do more to help the poor and disadvantaged.
She was a role model for women of the time, graduating from Albany Law School in 1967 while caring for her eight children. She enrolled as soon as her youngest child was in elementary school.
A contemporary, Marge Karowe, said she thought of Coffin while she slogged through law school herself, five years later.
“Every time it got so difficult, I would say to myself, ‘Mary Coffin had eight children. I only have six — this should be a breeze!’ ” she said.
They both went to law school because they wanted to help the community, Karowe recalled.
“Mary did a lot of pro bono. That’s why she came into law,” she said. “We were not there to make money. We were there because we felt there was a very important role for lawyers to solve problems.”
She said Coffin wanted to help “the people who needed it.”
So she worked on housing issues with the county’s housing code commission. She took on job training as a member of the advisory board for Schenectady’s employment and training administration. As a woman concerned about fairness and basic rights, she worked with the Law, Order & Justice Center.
She also tackled the issue of troubled families, working with the county human services planning council and Family and Child Services, which is now part of the Department of Social Services.
Coffin took on leadership positions in many community organizations, including Hospice and the YWCA.
Her children took great pride in their mother’s work.
“It was awesome in a lot of ways,” Pat Coffin said.
In addition to all her community service, Coffin was also an active politician, although she never ran for public office.
In 1960, she decided to start a rebellion in the Republican City Committee, taking on the men’s club.
She described the men’s club leaders as dictators who rigged meetings, intimidated committeemen and threatened people’s jobs to force them to endorse certain candidates.
“If then a small clique abuses the purpose for which they are chosen, responsible people representing the true party have an obligation to speak up and expose them,” she said at the time.
Luborsky said it came down to fairness: “She had a great sense of fairness and honesty. She hated slyness. She hated nasty politics.”
The rebellion was quickly squashed, The Gazette reported at the time, but Coffin was not silenced, and she went on to detail the offenses she said were committed by the men’s club.
Coffin remained on the Republican Committee for decades after the rebellion but abruptly resigned in 1983 to fight her party again.
She organized a “Republicans for Johnson” group to support Democrat Karen Johnson’s run for mayor.
Johnson narrowly beat Mayor Frank Duci, a Republican, and became the first woman elected mayor in Schenectady.
“She was just a great person,” Johnson said, adding: “She could look at a problem in a very analytical way and come up with an option. Very down to earth, very practical.”
In 1997, Coffin and her husband Louis moved to a retirement center, where they quickly became leaders in community affairs.
Their son Louis, known as Chip, died of cancer in 2004. Louis Sr. died in 2008.
Coffin is survived by seven children, their spouses and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.